Spain's forest fires raise environmental worries, suspicions

Arson arrests mount as blazes in Spain's lushest region become the country's worst environmental debacle since a 2002 oil spill.

José Moreira had a busy weekend. A woodcutter in Avión, a hamlet of some 3,000 people in Spain's northwestern Galicia region, Mr. Moreira spent Saturday and Sunday on the bucket line with his neighbors, fighting back flames that threatened their homes.

The blaze didn't completely surprise him – wildfires had come to Avión the two previous summers. But Moreira was shocked that this year Avión wasn't alone.

"For there to be so many significant fires in so many parts of Galicia isn't normal," he says. "Something strange is going on."

At one point last weekend more than 160 fires burned in Galicia, traditionally the country's wettest, greenest area. Local firefighters, the Army, and thousands of volunteers from across Spain have since extinguished all the blazes, but if the task of battling flames has subsided, the drudgery of finding their causes has only begun.The work is crucial since unlike in the western US, where summer wildfires result mostly from human error or lightning, Galicia's blazes appear to have been set intentionally. The ominous question now is why.

Since breaking out Aug. 4, Galicia's fires have killed four people, charred 67,000 of hectares of land, according to the local government, and engulfed cities like Santiago de Compostela and Ourense in drifting soot. So great is the damage that Environment Minister Cristina Narbona has compared the blazes to the environmental disaster when the Prestige oil tanker sank off of the Galician coast in 2002.

The economic toll will be high as well. The fires have destroyed numerous wood-producing and grazing areas in this agricultural region and drastically reduced tourism at the height of vacation season. Fires even reached parts of the Camino de Santiago trail.

Both the number and type of fires are suspicious. Most erupted around urban centers and spread with remarkable efficiency, suggesting to many that they were set for nefarious purposes. On Friday, Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba told the press that Galicia was facing "a new typology of fires – strategic and planned, with very bad intentions." Thirty suspected arsonists have been arrested so far. Theories abound to explain their motives if they turn out to be guilty. The most elaborate points to a conspiracy – perhaps involving developers who want the land.

"We can't confirm the existence of an arson conspiracy," says Joan Mesquida, director of the Civil Guard, "but we can't discard it either."

In Avión, one of the towns hardest hit, Mayor Antonio Montero rejects the conspiracy idea but believes the causes include more than pyromania or youthful pranks.

"It's not easy to start so many fires in so many different places at the same time," he notes.

His neighbor José Moreira is more blunt."The government provides subsidies for re-planting. So people burn forests, and then they get money to replant them as fields," says Moreira. He also suspects the disproportionate number of former firefighters among the arrested – including Julio Pascual, suspected of having started the Avión blaze.

"They're people unhappy because they've lost work," he says.

Police in Galicia appear to believe the same: They have asked the regional government for a list of all seasonal firefighters whose contracts were not renewed this year. But Manuel Berdullas, a Santiago de Compostela firefighter, sees another possibility – this one time-honored.

"There have always been fights in Galicia between cowherds on the one hand, the landowners on the other, with the cowherds setting fires when they needed more land for grazing. That could be in play now," Berdullas says, before reconsidering. "But there's something else going on this year. There are too many fires in too short a period of time."

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